She frequently performed jazz, big band, and pop music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts, although she began her career in the 1920s singing blues. Her best-known recording was her version of the spiritual, “His Eye is on the Sparrow“, and she was the second African American ever nominated for an Academy Award.
Ethel Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania on October 31, 1896, as a result of her mother’s rape at age 13 Ethel Waters was raised in a violent, impoverished home. She never lived in the same place for more than 15 months. She said of her difficult childhood, “I never was a child. I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.” Despite this unpromising start, Waters demonstrated early the love of language that so distinguishes her work. Moreover, according to women-in-jazz historian and archivist Rosetta Reitz, Waters’ birth in the North and her peripatetic life exposed her to many cultures. For the rest of her life, this lent to her interpretation of southern blues a unique sensibility that pulled in eclectic influences from across American music.
Waters married at the age of 13, but soon left her abusive husband and became a maid in a Philadelphia hotel working for US $4.75 per week. On Halloween night in 1913, she attended a party in costume at a nightclub on Juniper Street. She was persuaded to sing two songs, and impressed the audience so much that she was offered professional work at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. She later recalled that she earned the rich sum of ten dollars a week, but her managers cheated her out of the tips her admirers threw on the stage.
Ethel Waters sings “Am I Blue” from the 1929 motion picture “On With the Show”.
After her start in Baltimore Waters toured on the black vaudeville circuit. As she described it later, “I used to work from nine until unconscious.” Despite her early success, she fell on hard times and joined a carnival, traveling in freight cars along the carnival circuit, eventually reaching Chicago. Waters enjoyed her time with the carnival, and recalled, “The roustabouts and the concessionaires were the kind of people I’d grown up with, rough, tough, full of larceny towards strangers, but sentimental, and loyal to their friends and co-workers.” She did not last long with them, though, and soon headed south to Atlanta. There, she worked in the same club with Bessie Smith, who demanded that Waters not compete in singing blues opposite her. Waters conceded to the veteran blues headliner and instead sang ballads and popular songs, and danced. Perhaps today best known for her blues voice, Waters then was to sing, dance, play and star in musicals, plays and movies, and later in TV; but, she returned to singing blues whenever opportunity presented.
1934 “Miss Otis Regrets”
Waters loved a drug addict during this early period, but she ended the destructive relationship sometime before the war years. Around 1919 she moved to Harlem and there became a celebrity performer in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s.
Waters obtained her first job at Edmond’s Cellar, a club that had a black patronage. She specialized in popular ballads, and became an actress in a blackface comedy called Hello 1919. The jazz historian Rosetta Reitz points out that by the time Waters returned to Harlem in 1921, women blues singers were among the most powerful entertainers in the country. In 1921 Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record, on the tiny Cardinal Records label. She later joined Black Swan Records, where Fletcher Henderson was her accompanist. Waters later commented that Henderson tended to perform in a more classical style than she would prefer, often lacking “the damn-it-to-hell bass”. According to Waters, she influenced Henderson to practice in a “real jazz” style.
1933, “Stormy Weather”
She recorded with Black Swan from 1921 through 1923. In early 1924 Paramount bought the Black Swan label, and she stayed with Paramount through 1924. Waters then first recorded for Columbia Records in 1925, achieving a hit with her voicing of “Dinah”—which recording was voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. Soon after, she started working with Pearl Wright, and together they toured in the South. In 1924 Waters played at the Plantation Club on Broadway. She also toured with the Black Swan Dance Masters. With Earl Dancer, she joined what was called the “white time” Keith Circuit, a traditional white-audience based vaudeville circuit combined with screenings of (then-silent) movies. They received rave reviews in Chicago, and earned the unheard-of salary of US$1,250 in 1928. In 1929, Harry Akst helped Wright and Waters compose a version of “Am I Blue?“, her signature tune.
Although she was considered a blues singer during the pre-1925 period, Waters belonged to the Vaudeville-style style similar to Mamie Smith, Viola McCoy, and Lucille Hegamin. While with Columbia, she introduced many popular standards including “Dinah”, “Heebie Jeebies”, “Sweet Georgia Brown”, “Someday, Sweetheart”, “Am I Blue?” and “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue”.
Ethel Waters at the Billy Graham Cursade in Jackson, Mississippi on Mother’s Day 1975 singing ” His Eye Is On The Sparrow”
During the 1920s, Waters performed and was recorded with the ensembles of Will Marion Cook and Lovie Austin. As her career continued, she evolved toward being a blues and Broadway singer, performing with artists such as Duke Ellington.
She remained with Columbia through 1931. She then signed with Brunswick in 1932 and remained until 1933 when she went back to Columbia. She signed with Decca in late 1934 for only two sessions, as well as a single session in early 1938. She recorded for the specialty label “Liberty Music Shops” in 1935 and again in 1940. Between 1938 and 1939, she recorded for Bluebird.
In 1933, Waters made a satirical all-black film entitled Rufus Jones for President. She went on to star at the Cotton Club, where, according to her autobiography, she “sang ‘Stormy Weather‘ from the depths of the private hell in which I was being crushed and suffocated.” She took a role in the Broadway musical revue As Thousands Cheer in 1933, where she was the first black woman in an otherwise white show. She had three gigs at this point; in addition to the show, she starred in a national radio program and continued to work in nightclubs. She was the highest paid performer on Broadway, but she was starting to age. MGM hired Lena Horne as the ingenue in the all-Black musical Cabin in the Sky, and Waters starred as Petunia in 1942, reprising her stage role of 1940. The film, directed by Vincente Minnelli, was a success, but Waters, offended by the adulation accorded Horne and feeling her age, went into something of a decline.
“Taking A Chance On Love”
She began to work with Fletcher Henderson again in the late 1940s. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1949 for the film Pinky. In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Award for her performance opposite Julie Harris in the play The Member of the Wedding. Waters and Harris repeated their roles in the 1952 film version of Member of the Wedding” In 1950, Waters starred in the television series Beulah but quit after complaining that the scripts’ portrayal of African-Americans was “degrading.”
Despite these successes, her brilliant career was fading. She lost tens of thousands in jewelry and cash in a robbery, and the IRS hounded her. Her health suffered, and she worked only sporadically in following years. In 1950-51 she wrote the autobiography His Eye is on the Sparrow, with Charles Samuels. (It later was adapted for a stage production in which she was portrayed by Ernestine Jackson.) In it, she talks candidly about her life. She also explains why her age has often been misstated, saying that her mother had to sign a paper saying she was four years older than she was. She states she was born in 1900. In her second autobiography, To Me, It’s Wonderful, Waters states that she was born in 1897.
“Cabin In The Sky”
Rosetta Reitz called Waters “a natural”. Her “songs are enriching, nourishing. You will want to play them over and over again, idling in their warmth and swing. Though many of them are more than 50 years old, the music and the feeling are still there.” Waters is the great-aunt of Dance music singer and songwriter Crystal Waters. In the period before her death in Los Angeles, California, she toured with The Reverend Billy Graham, despite the fact that she had once been a Catholic and he was a Protestant. She died in 1977 at the age of 80 from heart disease, at the Chatsworth, California, home of a young couple who cared for her.
Sources: wikipedia, youtube, nndb.com
Quick Bio Facts:
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Sweet Mama Stringbean
Father: John Waters (mulatto rapist)
Mother: Louise Anderson (13 years old)
Husband: Merritt Purnsley (m. 1909, div. 1910)
Husband: Edward Mallory
Girlfriend: Ethel Williams
Girlfriend: Radclyffe Hall (rumored)
Beulah Beulah (1950-52)
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
The Sound and the Fury (27-Mar-1959)
The Member of the Wedding (30-Dec-1952)
Stage Door Canteen (24-Jun-1943) Herself
Cabin in the Sky (9-Apr-1943)
Tales of Manhattan (5-Aug-1942)
Author of books:
His Eye Is on the Sparrow (1951)
To Me It’s Wonderful (1972)
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